Yesterday I replied to Mary Midgley’s article out this weekend, which claimed that evolutionary theory does not refute Genesis since Genesis was not meant to be a literal description of how God made the world. In reply I revisted remarks and videos that I posted last fall which overviewed the ways that even if we take Genesis metaphorically and not literally, it still fails to be truthful since the ideas about human nature, human origins, human history, human responsibility for suffering, etc. which it metaphorically treats are all bad ideas refuted by evolutionary theory and/or other premises which I take to be (rightfully) obvious to modern minds.
In reply, James wrote this on the Camels With Hammers Facebook wall:
It is only metaphorically false if you think you know what the metaphor is supposed to be. Religion often has to be improved and re-interpreted. One religious studies teacher I knew said that religion should never have been written down to make it clear that it’s not written in stone.
Straight off, let’s grant that this attitude that religions should be improved and re-interpreted is far better than the alternative, traditionalist and fundamentalist, one that thinks that religions must adhere to their “original” and allegedly eternally perfect interpretations. Obviously the latter sort of fundamentalism leads to stagnating, anti-progressive and often outright regressive religion that comes into all sorts of ugly conflicts with all sorts of forces of rationally and morally good progress, all out of stubborn refusal to reconsider the old paradigms. If people must be religious, it is at least in principle better that they be open to rethinking and reinterpreting their religions’ values in light of new knowledge and new circumstances.
But is such a project rationally tenable?
In the first two sentences of James’s brief reply to me he slips between two very different understandings of what the religious are doing when they modernize or otherwise reinterpret their sacred texts’ meanings. First he says I can only debunk the ideas which a metaphor represents if I know what the metaphor is supposed to say. This seems to imply that the text has an intended meaning. And if these stories are worth orienting a religion, around and not just a literary circle, we would have to presume some sort of divine intention.
But James does not stick with the notion that the intentions of the story are necessarily what matters but shifts to talking about reinterpreting the stories. Maybe this is just to get at the “true intentions” of the stories the divine wanted there all along. But that’s problematic when the plain senses of the text require great hermeneutic contortions to reinterpret them. And its dubious that there is any divine truth there if it needs reinterpretation. It sounds more like just ordinary literary truth in that case. It might be though that the truths gotten in the past were just shallower or those fit for a different context than our deeper understanding or different context might allow from the same text.
But I want to argue, using the Garden of Eden as an example that there are a number of meanings which we cannot just comprehend more deeply now but which we should outright reject now. And I want to argue that if religious stories are to change with our understandings they are not the primary sources of wisdom themselves but dependent on other inquiries that necessarily must function autonomously from them in order to improve upon them. Or at least must function autonomously when interacting with them to find better ideas in them than were there on their face.
Interpreting The Story of Adam and Eve
The first interpretation of the metaphors of the story of the fall is that there was literally a better time in the human past in which people were more at peace with God, with their bodies, and with the natural world. Maybe it was not literally a perfect paradise with just two humans who literally saw and heard God, and maybe there was no literal talking snake. But nonetheless, things were much more idyllic and at peace until human disobedience against God incurred conflict, shame, a significant portion of the pain we experience in life, and alienation from God himself. The Hitchens video from the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” which I posted explores the facts of pre-historic man which show how this reading of humanity as moving from a period of greater peace and harmony into a period of increased conflict and discord is false on its face.
I think this next attempt at a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden story is more promising. Perhaps we can read the Garden of Eden story as an eternal myth, rather than a literal account of history. By an eternal myth, I refer to a story which uses fantastic myths to highlight a truth which recurs all the time (though in real world ways of course). A historical myth, by contrast, would tell a true story from history in such a way as to alter the facts in ways that infuse it with ideas, values, meanings, and morals which are more idealized. A historical myth turns history into a storybook for children, brushing over moral or philosophical complexities in favor of clear narratives of good and evil and heroes and villains that the people are to aspire to be or not to be. Historical myths turn history into stories for inculcating ideals.
An eternal myth on the other hand is a way of talking about general truths about how the world works. The story of Icarus teaches us not to be reckless in exploiting exciting new powers or opportunities, lest in our inexperience we get ourselves burned. Wherever people have new powers and opportunities and try to do too much with them too fast, the story of Icarus recurs. Wherever someone agrees to help a known destructive person, reasoning that the destructive person has no reason to destroy him since he is the destructive person’s benefactor, and the destructive person winds up destroying both him and, in the process, himself, the story of the scorpion and the frog recurs.
On one level, the Garden of Eden story is perfectly acceptable as an eternal myth. We might take it as a warning that when dealing with a seemingly benevolent and giving, but ultimately petty and merciless, tyrant who makes capricious rules that prevent others from knowing as much as he does, you had better not test him by committing even slight infractions because he will make an example of you by depriving you of everything. Now, there’s a lot of truth there in how those with little restraint on their powers act. Is it the truth about how an omnipotent and morally perfect being would act? No, clearly it is not. Whether or not there is such a being, we can formulate the concept of such a being and realize this story is a poor illustration of it. Therefore, insofar as it purports to be a depiction of a morally perfect omnipotent being it is a false story, both literally and in metaphorical substance. Yet, as a warning not to cross powerful people who are threatened by, rather than feel empowered by, the powers and knowledge of their subordinates, it’s a great story.
But all great literature has multiple meanings and the Garden of Eden story is unambiguously great literature. So, let’s explore another.
There is a specific theme of knowledge of good and evil being the source of human misery. In the Garden of Eden story, humans lived in blissful paradise prior to attaining knowledge of good and evil, but after they opted to have it they fell into misery. This story has severe problems. If Adam and Eve did not know good from evil prior to eating from the Tree of Knowledge, then it is incoherent that they could be penalized for doing something willfully wrong by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. If they did not already know good from evil, they could not willfully do wrong. If they didn’t know disobeying God was evil, then their doing it could not have represented an evil of the will. It might be an objective evil if contravening God’s will was wrong in itself, regardless of intentions. But that’s a strange conception of the wrong of disobedience. The wrong of disobedience seems to be the wrong of willfully defying a just authority. If I disobey a just law by accident because I am unaware of it and do not know the evil of my deed, then there might be objectively bad consequences and objectively bad “lawbreaking” but there is not an evil of will since there is not disobedience, despite the lawbreaking.
This is why since I was a kid I have interpreted the Tree of Knowledge to give Adam and Eve knowledge of good and evil by its very presence, prior to the sin (even though that’s not quite how the story reads). I like to think of the story as saying that the Tree which represented to Adam and Eve the one possibility for transgression or for obedience created in them the awareness of the possibility of doing good or of doing evil by giving them the opportunity to do either. This reading of the story has a mythic truth in it. One cannot have a morally praiseworthy or a morally blameworthy will unless one can both discriminate a morally good action from a morally evil one and choose the morally good one over the morally evil one and choose it because it is good and because it is not evil. One cannot be morally good by simply being unaware of the opportunities for evil or by having a will incapable of choosing them. Whether we have wills free enough for robust moral judgments of them is another issue for another time. But there is a truth in this reading of the story. But if Eve is sinning before she even knows the difference between good and evil, then it’s a confused and false story.
And on the version of the story where the temptation put to Adam and Eve is knowledge itself in the form of a Tree which makes it possible, the story blames the pursuit of knowledge for human suffering. I can think of few more pernicious things to teach people than that knowledge is the root of all evil and that the pursuit of it leads to the corruption of human nature. And it is completely backwards to spread the idea that aspiring to maximize our powers and be as close to God’s greatness as possible is evil. It is a good thing to discourage us from seeking to depose good rulers out of jealousy. But in a story where God represents the height of powers, this story has taught Christians to vilify power, knowledge, and aspiration as all rebellious attempts to usurp God’s power, and that’s all terrible. It teaches us to defer to God’s authoritarian rule, which has conveniently always been represented by actual people, institutions, and controlling ideas to whom the deference actually happens. Since there is no good corroboration for religious institutions’ claims to speak for the divine, this myth is a dangerous one that leads people to humble themselves before false authorities who teach them that their natures are best manifested as servile and ignorant when in fact human nature fulfills itself no more perfectly than when it maximizes its capacities for reason, autonomy, and self-overcoming towards greater powers.
The most important and truest idea in the story is that there is something amiss with our nature. There is a gap between what we are and what we ideally could be. That’s a simple but crucial idea and one that I think is true for various reasons I will defend (and have defended already) elsewhere. But the problem with the story is that it places our ideal in the past, rather than in the future where it might be actualized more and more. And, again, our ancient ancestors were not our ideal, they were further from it than we are. And the Garden of Eden story puts the onus on us for our failure to attain to our ideal. While it is, of course, valuable that we take as much responsibility as is motivational and productive for our own improvement, it is also not fair to blame ourselves and our failings for ourselves and our failings. In other words, much of our inadequacy stems not from deliberate choices but from the inertia of our genes, culture, and ingrained habits. Yes, we should proactively reverse this as much as possible, but we should not blame ourselves, or even our ancestors, as though it’s ultimately, in the truest sense their fault.
The idea of original sin, when it is interpreted as saying we are born messed up and that we inherit our erring ways from our parents, is to this extent very wise. This is importantly coupled with the notion that we nonetheless ideally reflect a “divine” or idealized human possibility. We are not the ideal human, that character is placed outside of us, essentially, in God. If it were a truer story, it would be placed as an ideal in the future towards which we further and further approximate but never reach. Aspiration to full self-actualization should not be denied us in a true myth, should not be placed outside of us in a being that perpetually judges and denounces us, but should be placed in our future as our goal which beckons us and which we can instantiate ourselves (at least theoretically, even as it in fact will forever remain a limit point towards which we can only draw closer and closer). Maybe that sounds too utopian and optimistic about human nature. That’s understandable. My point though is that us, instead of demanding of us submission and humility and self-abnegation, our myths about our nature should point us towards its perfectability—towards that which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam wrongly project onto God and rob from us. There are, of course, times for self-sacrifice, times for humility, and times for submission. But these belong as part of an overall life of maximally flourishing in our human powers, not as the realization of our low place in the universe and as the renunciation of the pursuit of our powers.
And even though it is a truth that we are born with both great powers and great propensities to fail to realize them, it is wrong for us to see this as a shame and a consequence of our ancestors’ sins. And this is precisely backwards because many of our most problematic tendencies are due to our ancestors’ fitness for the conditions in which they lived. They developed the most successful traits for their time and place and so they replicated their effective traits in us, whereas their peers with other traits did not replicate those traits into different modern humans. In other words, while it is true that we inherit many of our flaws, it’s not true that it’s because they were originally flaws. And it’s decisively not because our ancestors had bad or “disobedient” wills or turned their backs on a divine being that we make mistakes. It’s simply because our traits developed as tools for survival that were remarkable enough but not perfectly calibrated. And the variation is to our advantage since certain personalities and certain virtues are necessary in some circumstances. As ill-fit to some occasions as many of our temperaments and inclinations are, there are invariably other times at which they are vitally valuable—otherwise, we probably would have never kept them.
So, the story is much more complicated than one in which our “bad” traits are all bad or, at least, were bad when our ancestors had them (if we want to take a historical myth interpretation of the story). I think the story of human prehistory and human history is of different traits becoming good and becoming bad as we have progressed towards greater civilization.
There are some other mythic truths in the Garden of Eden but they are simple ones that give the story no credit as a true guide to ethics or a divine revelation of any sort. The iconic metaphor of the forbidden fruit, the shrewd critique of shame at our nakedness as a sign that we among all the animals are curiously uniquely alienated from nature, and the notion that small indulgences in indiscretion can ruin everything, are all valuable ideas that one need not be religious to embrace and employ and allude to at will. But none of this adds up to a special truth, worth religious devotion. It’s just good literature.
Now, the question arises, must I be wrong in my interpretations of the various meanings of the Garden of Eden story in any and every place where it would make Judaism or Christianity or Islam either look bad or be philosophically/scientifically/morally inaccurate? The answer is: only if we assume from the outset that the text in some significant sense comes from the divine who actually intendedto say all sorts of actually true philosophical and moral and scientific things and that anything that genuinely contradicts them in my interpretation must be misunderstood.
But while I think there are some good ideas in the story, there are some clearly problematic ones that cannot be rationalized away without doing damage to the literature to the point where it has been twisted into saying things it clearly does not say but that we think it should say or wish it did say. If we are to believe that this is a text that should be treated as morethan great literature and if it is to be evidence of the divine, it should not take creative reinterpretations in order to square it with contemporary, rationally defensible, improved understandings of the world. A divine being should be able to get it right on the first shot.
Some argue that he gave the text as stories to be progressively understood as we progressed as people. But it is not like the interpretations of the world I laid out as contravening the text are all merely progressive understandings of the text (though some are in a stretched way). They are genuine disagreements with any meaning of some key themes in the text.
And it would be really curious if the only way to discover what the divine wanted to teach us through the text were to progress independently of the text to various understandings and read them back into the text once we figured them out. Isn’t it simpler to just say that we figured these things out without the story to aid us than to pretend we only now understand the story and learn what it really means (or more of what it really means)?
If the story is not always ahead of and guiding our moral and philosophical and scientific understanding but conveniently being reinterpreted to match the progress in these things, then it is better to acknowledge it is a story from the past which has helped to shape who we are but which is being surpassed. To hold it as sacred and special, not merely as a cultural landmark but as in some way a uniquely divine story, is to overestimate one piece of literature over all the others and over morality and philosophy and science, etc.
We can always turn to great myths to see if they embody ancient traditional wisdom that might still be insightful to contemporary problems or to see how it might pleasingly illuminate and reinforce a better understood modern concept. But religion requires more than that. It requires a special status and veto power for sacred stories (set in stone as texts or not) over other ideas.
The argument that the Bible is just metaphorical stories with reinterpretable content is only a compelling case for not burning Bibles and destroying all traces of their influence on culture. It’s not a positive case for why they are special stories, divine stories, the stuff worth building a religion around. And considering the unfortunate ways that people have elevated it and in which it has blocked people from grasping various true ideas that conflict with its ideas (whether literally or metaphorically expressed) about philosophy and morality, I would rather point out the ways that it goes wrong than do creative hermeneutics to prop up its power. While it has truths like all great literature does, it is also very wrong about other things and its truth has been so overestimated that I want to emphasize its substantive errors as a corrective against that overestimation. The day that it is only seen as a great work of literature, both inspiring and criticizable as Odyssey, Iliad, Beowulf, Sense and Sensibility, Star Wars, and Batman, I’ll happily also just think of it as literature. But too many think that either literally or metaphorically it is a special guide and so it needs to be held to a higher truth standard as far as I’m concerned.